John Woodruff

Olympic gold medallist at Berlin Olympics

John Youie Woodruff, athlete: born Connellsville, Pennsylvania 5 July 1915; married (one son, one daughter); died Fountain Hills, Arizona 30 October 2007.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics, the most politically and racially charged in history, will forever belong to Jesse Owens. But it was another black athlete in the US team that year – John Woodruff – who achieved surely the most remarkable track and field victory of those Games, when he won the gold medal in the 800m.

At the time Woodruff, then and forever after known as "Long John" for his spindly legs and lanky 6ft 3in frame, was a second-year university student. Aged 21, he was one of 12 African-American athletes picked to represent the United States. It was the largest contingent yet, sneeringly referred to by Hitler's propaganda chief Josef Goebbels as "black auxiliaries".

That 4 August, Woodruff was among the favourites in the 800m final, but his chance seemed to have vanished by the end of the first lap. He was completely boxed in by his rivals in a slow-paced race, unable to exploit his raking 10-foot stride. At that point, he made a calculated but extraordinary decision. He stopped running.

"I didn't panic," he said in an interview on the 70th anniversary of the race. "I just figured if I had only one opportunity to win, this was it. I've heard people say that I slowed down or almost stopped. I didn't almost stop. I stopped, and everyone else ran around me."

In space at last, he moved to the outside lane and surged past the entire field, and held on to win the gold medal in 1min 52.9sec, ahead of the Italian Mario Lanzi and the Canadian doctor Phil Edwards, who finished third. Unsurprisingly, Hitler snubbed him afterwards.

Woodruff's career, like that of so many other athletes of his era, was cut short by the Second World War, in which he rose to the rank of captain. Beforehand, however, he won a clutch of national titles, and was a member of the US team that set a world 4x880 yards relay record.

His greatest achievement perhaps though was merely getting to Berlin in the first place. He was the grandson of former slaves from Virginia, and he later described his parents as "basically illiterate" – to the point that he had to sign his own school-report cards on behalf of his father. One of 12 siblings, he was the first member of the family to attend university, as his prowess on the track earned him a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.

But that only came about when he was refused a job at the local glass factory, with the words "We don't hire negroes." College life was often no easier. Some visiting teams refused to compete against black athletes. When Pittsburgh travelled, he had to find digs with a local black family or at a blacks-only hotel.

Woodruff rejoined the military to serve in the Korea, and was promoted to Lt-Colbefore returning to civilian life in 1957. Later he worked as a teacher, a social services investigator and a parole officer in New York, before retiring to live in Arizona. In 2001 both his legs were amputated after circulatory problems following a hip operation. But his will and tenacity were undiminished. As he told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 2006, "I'd rather be without my legs and have a good mind."

Rupert Cornwell

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